Tripod and monopod
Either or both of these items could be very important in helping you take quality bird images. Again, whether you need either of these items depends on what method you will be using to take bird photos–from your car, hiking trails, waiting in a hide, etc. It also depends on whether you get a lens with stabilization and/or how well you’ve developed your shooting technique. It usually takes some time to get used to a heavy camera/lens combination and to develop the correct technique that allows you to handhold your camera when taking bird shots. So you may need at least a monopod, if not a tripod, unless you will be shooting from a vehicle most of the time like I do.
The tripod I purchased (several years ago) is a Manfrotto and cost around $250 including the ball head. It is quite heavy but pretty sturdy. I’ve used it a few times for bird photography but I mostly use it for family pictures at family events. When I do get out of my vehicle to shoot birds, I’ll usually have my camera/lens combination attached to my Manfrotto monopod or just shoot handheld. The pod cost about $60 and the ball head about $100.
When I’m walking a trail I’ll have the monopod already extended to a comfortable height for shooting while standing. The upper part of the leg of the pod lies on my shoulder and the camera is positioned behind my shoulder with lens usually facing down. The leg of the pod sticks out in front of me as I’m walking. With the monopod, I’ve taken the weight of the camera and lens off of my hands and arms when I am shooting. But there is still the forward, back, and lateral motion when shooting that I need to contend with.
When I see a possible shot opportunity, I quickly take the pod off my shoulder, set the bottom of the leg on the ground, spin the camera around to forward facing, loosen the ball head clamp, look through the viewfinder, aim, focus with my thumb, and shoot.
If I’m next to a tree or other solid object, I’ll utilize that to either lean against or have the camera lean against, which helps steady the shot from lateral movement. Sometimes the leg of the pod feels sturdiest at a slight angle and sometimes I actually wrap my leg around the pod to help steady it. It might look weird but if it helps get a sharp shot, I’ve done what I came to do.
If I’m shooting upwards at a bird (which isn’t usually the most desirable perspective) I’ll quickly extend the leg fully so that the camera is higher than eye level and it’s easier for me to put my eye to the viewfinder with the camera tilted back. I don’t have to bend at the knees so much to get my eye behind the camera like I would with a slightly shortened monopod extension. With practice you get to where the pod leg adjustment happens very quickly, as do all the other steps mentioned above. I haven’t even mentioned about the steps required to set the exposure and focus the camera. That will come in a later section.
Sometimes my target bird or animal will be on the ground so I like to get the camera down lower to the ground for a better perspective on the shot. I quickly loosen the leg clamp so that the bottom half of the leg telescopes fully into the upper portion of the leg. This gets me down to about 2 feet from the ground. If I want to go lower, I could tilt the pod leg back toward me while continuing pressure on the camera down into the ground. I could also just lay the pod on the ground and loosen the ball head if I wanted to get way down low.
Obviously, the best setup from a camera shake perspective would be to shoot from a tripod whenever possible. For an old guy like me, it is really tough to lug the camera, lens and tripod down a long trail, up and down hills, etc. I basically have compromised and decided to use the monopod instead of the tripod to reduce the weight of the equipment when I go out on foot. If you’re younger, then you may have the required stamina to carry the tripod. Like with a lot of things in photography, it depends! Each individual must determine what methodology is best for them and this is done by trying different methods out in the field and practicing with the equpment.
For me, a disadvantage with the tripod out on a trail is set up time–once I spot a bird. In many cases, by the time I get the tripod off my shoulder and the legs spread, the bird is gone–likely because of the ruckus I caused setting up the tripod. With the monopod, I set the leg down and quickly adjust for height if needed and I’m ready to shoot.
There are other shooting methodologies where tripods can be handy. Getting certain special shots can require that you use a portable hide that you can pack into an area. It’s basically a small tent made from camouflage material. Some photographers will go to the extent of packing the hide into an area where there is a pond with certain types of ducks, say. They’ll set up the hide and then leave it for a couple of days so the ducks get used to it being there. When shooting day comes, the photographer will sneak into the hide with his/her equipment in early morning while it is still dark, wait for sun up, and hopefully get some awesome water level duck shots—a perspective few people ever get to witness. The camera could be set up on a low level tripod or even on a bean bag depending on the water situation.
When it comes right down to it, you will likely require either a tripod or a monopod, and maybe you’ll want both. Where and how you develop your shooting will determine your needs for a tripod/monopod.
When buying a tripod or monopod, a lot of money can be spent. Tripods and monopods also need some type of ball head attached to the top so you can tilt the camera in the direction you need. Ball heads can easily be more expensive than the tripod itself. As a beginner or even an intermediate bird photographer, you want something sturdy that won’t break the bank. I paid a little over $200 for my Manfrotto tripod and a 486RC ball head. I got the same ball head for my monopod. The ball head alone was over $100 and the monopod was around $60. For larger, heavier lenses, heads can easily exceed $600.
UPDATE 28Oct2014: Since my upgrade to a fairly large lens about a year ago, I decided to also upgrade my tripod head to make it easier to handle when attached to the tripod. The 486RC ball head just wasn’t cutting it when I was shooting an Osprey nest. I ended up getting the Manfrotto 393 gimbal head–the poor person’s gimbal! It costs less than a third of the premium Wimberly gimbal head and it does what I need it to do especially considering I won’t be using it that often. It’s big and bulky but securely holds the lens on the tripod and makes it effortless to move.
So my suggestion is to talk to people who have a tripod and get their feedback. Go online and check forums and reviews about certain models. As you might expect, the lighter in weight the tripod is, the more it will cost. Be sure the tripod/monopod you choose is rated for the weight of your camera, lens, and flash combination.
Bean Bags and Shooting from a Vehicle
If you live next to a park or refuge where you can legally drive your vehicle through it and where there is enough room to stop on the edge of the road while still leaving room for other vehicles to pass you, then you might want to try taking bird photos from your rig. Your car or truck becomes your mobile blind and you’ll be amazed how effective this can be for getting close to birds–relatively speaking.
If shooting from your vehicle is viable, you will want to have at least one bean bag, but likely two so you have the option to shoot from either the driver’s side window (DSW) or the passenger’s side window (PSW). How you set up bean bags in a vehicle depends on the size/width of your car and whether you have a center console with bucket seats. A center console will get in your way and make it difficult to move over to the PSW.
This is why I love my little 23-year old compact pickup. It has a bench seat and no console and it’s not very wide. So I’m fairly free to slide over a little bit toward the PSW if a photo opportunity arises there. To further assist me, I have a small, wooden foot stool that is about a foot high and maybe 12 x 18 inches in size. I place the stool on my passenger seat (since the truck is old, I don’t mind slight leg marks on the seat) and it fits perfectly between the door and the seat belt holder near the center of the bench seat. This foot stool allows me to lay my forearms on it while I’m leaning over toward the PSW. To make it more comfortable for my arms, I have a small round pillow that is not too thick, that I lay on the foot stool. This pillow also makes a perfect place to set my camera while I’m driving between bird sightings. So when I see a photo op out the PSW I pick up my camera, lean over toward the PSW, place my forearms and/or elbows on the pillow (which is on top of the foot stool) taking the weight off of my back, lay my lens on a bean bag that lays across the down-positioned window opening, look through the viewfinder, aim, and shoot. I’ll sometimes adjust the bean bag forward or back, in the window opening, depending on my truck location in relation to the bird. I can also roll the window up to adjust the height of the bean bag. However, use caution as your window rolling mechanism is likely not built to raise a 15 – 20 pound bean bag.
This bean bag for my PSW is a flat rectangle shaped bag called a Kinesis Safari Sack. It’s about 10 x 16 x 2 inches and is filled with raw pinto beans. It runs about $30 plus the cost of the beans. The bag is long enough to extend from the window edge of the foot stool, across the window opening, and sticks out the window a few inches. The bag does a good job repelling water when it rains but it’s probably not “water-proof.” It provides a nice solid base for my lens and camera for shots out the PSW. I let my bean bags get wet to a certain extent but I don’t let them soak for hours. I don’t think water will damage them anyway but I try not to let too much water get into the beans.
On the driver’s side window (DSW), I have another bean bag that is molar shaped (like a tooth). In fact it is called the Molar Bean Bag by Vertex. Vertex has actually replaced this model with the V2 Molar Bean Bag, with an optional V2 plate that can be attached. The plate accepts any gimbal or ball head so that any size lens can be mounted as if it were the head of a tripod.
My molar bean bag required about 18 pounds of raw pinto beans to fill it. The bean bag straddles the top of the door with the window open and the two ‘roots’ of the molar fit snugly against the outside and inside of the car door. It really makes a nice shooting platform for a camera and long lens. I noticed that rain soaks into the bag more readily than with the Safari Sack. I’ve let it get pretty wet but I typically don’t leave it in pouring rain too long. The newer V2 model is apparently more water resistant and sells for $49 plus $7 shipping.
What if your car has the center console in the front seat that keeps you from sliding toward the PSW? As mentioned above, I don’t have this situation with my little truck but if you do, here is one idea to help remedy the situation and allow shooting out the PSW with your long lens. I’ve seen folks with this situation place a sturdy board about 4 to 7 feet in length (and at least a 1×4 if not thicker), horizontally from the dashboard back to where it rests on top of the passenger’s side front seat or the back seat area under the rear window. This can give you a relatively level surface to place a bean bag and then your camera to shoot out the PSW. I’m sure there are other setups that you can think of to get a shooting platform for the PSW.